AS THE OLD cliché goes, cricket is a team game played by individuals. The batsman bats, the bowler bowls, the fielder fields, the captain captains, and, away behind the scenes, the selector selects, and the coach— pray, what does the coach do? It is here in this query that the current reported impasse between Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli rests.
Cricket like several other sports has a clear cut separation of powers. The selectors chose the squad and the captain helms that team on the field. But despite the rapid evolution of the game, the position of the coach has never come to be defined well. He has not come to assume the powerful position of ,say, a football manager. You don’t see him working himself up into an agitated spectacle at a game, shouting at his players and occasionally the officials, like say at a football match.. Instead, you see the coach jotting down notes or sipping tea. In the case of Kumble, you often see him with a camera as a player approaches a milestone that makes you wonder if the captain hasn’t made him in charge of team photographs.
However, we are now entering a new age of the coach. The coach doesn’t coach anymore. There are batting, fielding, bowling coaches for that. There are nutritionists, sports psychologists, physiotherapists to help him. Like other sports, cricket is becoming a lot more of science and data analysis. The coaches’ job is now to interpret these data and to manage the squad. Perhaps there will be a time when coaches become mini-celebrities of their own right. But that time has yet not emerged.
Right now, the definition of the coach is still fluid. And his power depends on the personality which assumes office and his relationship with the captain. More often than not, the way things are, one sees an exceptionally powerful captain and a subservient coach. In the past, several India coaches who have had successful stints—John Wright, Gary Kirsten, Duncan Fletcher, and even Ravi Shastri— worked under the shadow of a pre-eminent skipper.
In the rare instance that the balance was breached—between Greg Chappel and Sourav Ganguly for instance—a power struggle ensued. David Lloyd, who coached the England team in the late 1990s working mostly with two captains, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart, once told The Guardian, “At that time the captain ruled the roost, he was the boss really, and you were there to support him. So I wouldn't cross either of the captains I worked with.”
By all accounts it appears that Kumble has crossed Kohli and some other players. According to reports, Kumble conducts himself like a ‘headmaster at school’. He apparently pushes them too hard, and many players have felt “a bit intimidated” by his approach. At least on one occasion he even went over Kohli to make some selection decisions.
About a year ago, the BCCI’s advisory committee went out of their way to appoint Kumble as the coach. He did not fulfil the BCCI criterion of having ‘successfully coached a cricket team of any of the member countries of the ICC’, and superseded others who on paper were more qualified for the job. It was believed that the Kohli-Kumble combine would herald a new moment in Indian cricket. And by last years’ performances it seems to be so.
As Dhoni’s retirement looms, there is but only one power centre in the team. Not for instance like in the 1990s and 2000s, where several cricketers like Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble occupied the same dressing room. As Kohli achieves dizzying heights of stardom within international cricket, it is probable that he will also want to assume more power behind the scenes as well.
Kumble is a legend on his own right. He is not a yes-man and has his own philosophy. Kohli and Kumble, an aggressive current cricketer and a sharp former captain, would have made for a great mix. But unfortunately it appears this cocktail hasn’t turned out well.